Another churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has met and adjourned. The 1,018 voting members have boarded planes or slid behind the wheels of their vehicles to return to their homes and their churches. What news will they bring? Are they called to be bearers of “good news” or will they deliver messages of concern for and disappointment in their institutional church body?
More than likely they will deliver mixed messages asking those who have ears to hear, “Which do you prefer first, the good news or the bad?” Even more, they return wondering what is truly good news and which decisions won’t serve well the future of the ELCA. In a bit of a fog, many seem to me to be pondering, “What did we really do?”
Though in balmy Florida, a fog of ambiguity and uncertainty settled in the convention hall of the Orlando World Center Marriott and resulted in important decisions being made that lacked much needed clarity.
An exception would be the assembly’s rejection of the ELCA church council’s recommendation 3, which was quite clear. It would have created a process to allow the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals in committed relationships. The joint efforts of Solid Rock Lutherans and the WordAlone Network served the wider national and global communities of Lutherans well.
With that acknowledged, we need to peer into the fog to try to understand just what the adoption of recommendation 2 meant. It calls for “clearly respecting” the guidance of a 1993 statement from the Conference of Bishops about blessing same-sex relationships. It was amended to trust local pastors and congregations to provide faithful pastoral care “for all to whom they minister” rather than “to same-sex couples,” which was the original wording. Though repeated attempts to clarify the meaning of “pastoral care” were made, the fog never lifted. Did the ELCA churchwide voting members approve blessing of same sex unions or not? It depends on whom you ask. The leadership of the ELCA needs to cut through the fog and come out with a clear explanation of what this action of the assembly really means.
Though the “Whereas” clauses contained in the recommendation define marriage as the bond between a man and a woman, voices from both sides of the issue defined the use of the term “pastoral care” in speech after speech to mean allowing blessings of same-sex relationships by pastors in local churches. It also needs to be noted that there was neither process nor policy for synodical oversight or discipline in the recommendation. Furthermore, the assembly voted against two proposed substitutes to recommendation 2. One would have clearly defined God’s blessing in marriage to be reserved to the relationship between one man and one woman while the other would have openly provided for a process of local option for the blessing of homosexual relationships.
Those who opposed approval reflected upon biblical and theological arguments that jointly witnessed to the belief that we have no authority to bless same-sex relationships. They pointed out that pastors would be left to themselves to decide what providing “pastoral care” in their situations really meant. Is that not a form of local option with no synodical guidance, process or limits?
Those advocating change shared many personal and emotional stories and added that they could not go home with “less” than they came with. What they came with became more apparent to the listeners when even current bishops revealed that blessings have been taking place all along under the 1993 bishop’s statement. Many expressed surprise to hear that. Those in attendance heard that bishops present when the 1993 statement was written were not in agreement as to its intent. Did the term “pastoral care” allow for this blessing as a local option or not?
The fog never lifted during these past 12 years but it seems that the majority of the church believed that these blessings were not intended nor allowed.
Though it is dangerous and perhaps a bit naïve to attempt to discern the intention of more than 1,000 people, their failure to pass clarifying substitutes and amendments only made the fog thicker. Not one speech made during the hours of debate read recommendation 2 to close the door on any blessings of same-sex unions. The majority present voted to live in the fog and allow pastors to practice undefined “pastoral care” for all people. The amendment, meant for good to provide some limits, changing the language from “same sex couples” to “all people” seems to have actually clouded the issue further. As amended, it no longer limits it to “two” people or only “same-sex.” This listener notes that at least four speeches by those in favor of the amendment and the acceptance of recommendation 2 mentioned biblical instances of polygamy.
The fog has meaning and intentionality.
To state this is not to be pessimistic but rather realistic. Assemblies, time and time again, try to seek the middle of the road in order to achieve some agreement or sense of “unity.” But driving down the middle of the road in dense fog is extremely dangerous for individuals and certainly for a mainline denomination that calls itself “Lutheran.” Luther was not known for being middle of the road or for lacking clarity on issues of life and faith. He did not live or lead in the fog. His resolve of some 500 years ago must become our own. Only if convinced by Scripture and sound reason could any church make such a change and speak a word of blessing upon something that God never spoke Himself. Though personal stories and shared emotions make many of us wish we could embrace this change, sadly enough, we don’t have the authority to do so.
The fog has degree. It is lukewarm. After years of task force study and more than a million dollars spent, the ELCA could not let its “yes be yes” or its “no be no.” We left Florida neither hopeful nor in despair. We departed proceeding down the middle of the road or flew off into the lukewarm fog, not knowing what the ELCA really allows or what pastors in the local churches would do or be asked to do.
Prepare for moving through and out of the fog, remembering the clear word in Revelation regarding the church of Laodicea. (Rev. 3:14ff) If we faithfully try and yet fail to clarify the fog, then have faith that our Lord Jesus will take care of it in the end as he does all matters of life and death and faith.
In Christ alone we place our hope, our faith and our future.